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Books That Made Me Fall in Love with Asia, A Guest post + Giveaway (INT) from Douglas Jaffe


Hi Everyone!

I want to thank Karina for inviting me to contribute a post to her wonderful site!

Chasing Dragons is a work that pulls from the experiences and influences that have shaped me over the last two decades. This period saw me leave the comfort of the United States and embark on a multi-year journey that has taken me to various countries across Asia. While out here, I’ve worn the hats of student, traveler, analyst and entrepreneur, but one common thread has always been books! These days, I’m living in Hong Kong and consider this manic metropolis my home.

For this guest post, I’d like to highlight a few of the books that have helped ignite my passion for and fascination with this part of the world. These books stirred the imagination and gave me a glimpse into cultural worlds far removed from what I’d known previously.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng En (Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China translated by Arthur Waley)

Goodreads

Journey to the West is one of the Four Great Chinese Classics and is studied by children all across the Chinese-speaking world. It is a fictional account of a Buddhist monk named Xuanzang, who is tasked with going to India and bringing back Buddhist Sutras. The story is loosely based on an actual event, although the book is a subtle mix of farce, fantasy and thinly veiled political satire.


Most people know the story for its irrepressible lead character, Sun Wu Kong, known more commonly as Monkey. He is best described as a flawed hero who has a tendency to act first and consider consequences later. 

Throughout Journey to the West, he is constantly saving the rather hapless Xuanzang, while managing to have loads of fun along the way.

The Chinese version is extremely long and the prose can be somewhat inaccessible to even many modern Chinese. For English readers, there is an excellent, summarized book published in 1942 by Arthur Waley called Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China. This definitely worth picking up and might actually inspire a few readers to begun studying Chinese in their spare time.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Goodreads

Murakami is no doubt well known to many, having published a number of books over the last decade.

 For me, my introduction to his work came when I read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I was living in Taiwan at the time, as a recent university graduate, and just beginning to study Chinese. When I found this book, it just floored me. Murakami is a Japanese writer and he writes about Japan, but for a new Asia transplant with a curiosity about all things Asia, I was hooked.

He was one of the first authors I’d encountered who deftly blended modern, urban fiction with fantasy elements.

Tokyo was a city I knew fairly well from a summer spent interning there but his Tokyo and his Japan were so rich and hip that it struck me how little I knew about that marvelous country.

 His work also taught me that it is OK to discard convention and write what you want to write.

The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher Koch

Goodreads

This is a novel from the 1970s that most people may recognize from the film that was made with Mel Gibson. I never had much affinity for the film but the book made a deep impression. I was a post-graduate student in London studying the history of Southeast Asia when I first found this book. It was a sultry, steamy and captivating introduction to Indonesia and its tumultuous history.

Perhaps it was my youthful nature and the excitement of being a voyeur at the crux of an historical period, but this book really fired my imagination. 

Apart from the gripping story, there was also an underlying energy and passion to the book, communicated to me through the imagery of Wayang (Indonesian Shadow Puppet Theater). To this day, I cannot think of Indonesia without bringing to mind this book and the image of those floating, beautiful puppets doing their eternal dance of light and shadow.

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox Part One: Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Goodreads

This is one of those books that give you a grin a mile wide. I was passed the book by a friend and had considered giving it a miss. To my surprise, it sucked me in and I was stunned at the humor and sheer joy that the author brought to the work. At the time, I was reading rather depressing historical accounts of Mao’s devastating “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” so this book brought much needed levity.

Master Li is a decidedly flawed Sherlock Holmes-type character and is ably assisted by his naïve but endearing companion, Number 10 Ox.

Master Li is, quite simply, a con man who decided that solving crimes was more interesting than committing them.

The story rockets across China and the dialogue is often hilarious and pointed. I wasn’t as taken with the other books in the series but perhaps that is often what happens when a new voice appears and you eventually become accustomed to it. Sadly, due to issues with his publisher, Hughart has not published further books in the series since.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Goodreads

I found this book on the shelves and did a double take when I saw that it was set in a futuristic Thailand. It is rare to see books of this genre set in Asia and it had a compelling enough summary to close the deal for me. It was a good decision. I’m too often confused with the various genre labels (steampunk, biopunk, etc.) but I knew I liked this, whatever it was.

It’s a manic, exciting book crammed with so much detail and overlapping plots that I felt a bit oppressed when reading it. 

In many ways, it reminded me of being stuck in Bangkok traffic! It is an ambitious work and like many debut novels, introduced us to something strikingly original. He manages to convey the heat and desperation that you sometimes find in Southeast Asia’s giant metropolises, while weaving together a frightening vision of a future where food insecurity sets loose the worst of humanity.

Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought by Wolfram Eberhard

Goodreads

This last book is more of a resource for those with an interest in Chinese culture and the language. It is an accessible, fun read that takes you into the world of Chinese characters. You can look up specific characters and see their historical and culture significance. It is particularly useful if you have an Asian Art Museum nearby and want to get insights into the various animals, plants and images used in the works.

Even if your only exposure to China is through your local Chinatown or Chinese restaurant, this book will give you a glimpse into the phenomenal history underpinning all aspects of Chinese culture.


Douglas Jaffe has been in Asia for over 17 years and originally came to the region from New York as a graduate student, studying in China and Taiwan. He has a dual Masters in Chinese Studies and International Affairs and speaks passable Chinese on a good day.

In recent years, Douglas has pursued his interest in writing fiction and has recently published his first novel, Chasing Dragons. A second book is currently in the works.

You can find Doug on his Chasing Dragons Facebook page or on his Goodreads author page.

Summary
 Sebastian is the owner of a bookstore café in Hong Kong who provides informal counseling services to an array of offbeat characters. His quiet life is suddenly upended when he meets Chloe, and their relationship takes a startling turn, as it begins to parallel the relationship of a pair of mythical dragons from Chinese history. The lovers struggle with questions of mortality and immortality, before a choice is made that pulls them apart.

From the safety of his bookstore, Sebastian observes the world around him through his books and his counseling clients, whose problems range from infidelity to the challenges of dealing with an overbearing mother. Living within the frenzied metropolis that is Hong Kong, Sebastian tries his best to live a quiet, predictable life.

Unbeknownst to him, there is a parallel story unfolding about Chi Wen and Zhao Chen, two dragons from Chinese mythology. While initially distinct from Sebastian’s modern life, this alternative reality begins to filter through and he finds himself increasingly subjected to visions and memories of a life he does not remember.

Sebastian has a chance meeting with Chloe one afternoon and they share an immediate attraction and familiarity that quickly draws them together. As the relationship deepens, Sebastian’s visions and dreams of Chi Wen and Zhao Chen intensify, and he begins to lose his grip on his sanity.

Reality and mythology blur and Sebastian is forced to question his own life and his relationship with Chloe. As the modern and mythical worlds start to intersect, Sebastian is drawn back into an ancient battle of wills. Solving the mystery of his frightening visions leads him to a choice that will throw his life into turmoil and potentially destroy his humanity.

Buy Chasing Dragons
 Amazon US/UK

GIVEAWAY

ONE ecopy of Chasing Dragons.
Open to all.
Ends 25th of January 2013.
Good luck!

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